Anti-Imperialist Britain

The sentiment of Continental Europe towards Islam — I do not speak of England — is still one of social hostility and political aggression. In spite of all the changes which have affected religious thought in Catholic Europe, and of the modern doctrine of tolerance, none of the nations by which Islam is immediately confronted by have changed anything of their policy, since they first resolved to recover “Christian lands lost to the infidel.”

It is true that most of them no longer put forward religious zeal as the motive of their action, or the possession of the Holy Sepulchre as its immediate object; but under the name of “civilization” their crusade is no less a continuous reality, and the direction of their efforts has not ceased to be the resumption by Europe of political control in the whole of the provinces once forming the Roman Empire.

The sentiment, in its origin, was a just one, and, though now become for the most part selfish with the various Christian states, who see in the advantage to Christendom only an advantage to themselves, it appeals to an ancient and respectable moral sanction which is in itself no inconsiderable power. It is certain that the national conscience neither of France, nor Spain, nor Italy, nor Austria would repudiate an aggression, however unprovoked, upon any of the still independent Mussulman states of the Mediterranean, and that the only judgment passed on such an act by public opinion would be one dependent on its failure or success.

Thus, in estimating the future of Islam as a political body, and in view of the disparity proved to exist at all points between modern Europe and its ancient rival in the matter of physical strength, we must be prepared to see the latter submit at no distant date to great territorial losses along the whole line of its European frontier.

Few, I think, to begin from the extreme West, will be inclined to doubt that, should the French succeed in thoroughly crushing the Arab movement which they have provoked in Tunis, and which will in [all probability be extended next summer to Morocco and Tripoli, the beginning of the next century will see what is left of the Barbary Coast in their possession, or in that of Spain or Italy; and the greater part of the cultivable lands fronting the Mediterranean occupied by their immigrants.

What France has done or attempted to do in Algiers her two neighbours may possibly achieve with even more success in Morocco and western Tripoli, for the Spaniards and Italians are both eminently colonizing races, and the hill country of Barbary is little different in climate from their own. Tripoli, on the break up of the Ottoman Empire, will certainly tempt Italian statesmen, and Spain has already a footing on the African coast in Tetuan.

It is therefore conceivable that the better lands on the seaboard will receive a flood of such agriculturists from either country as now seek their fortunes on the River Plate and elsewhere. Should such be the case, the Mohammedan population may be ousted from their possession of the soil, and driven southwards, at least for a time, and a considerable decrease of the political strength of Islam be witnessed in that quarter.

The war on TV. Tube advert, January 2009.
The war on TV. Tube advert, January 2009.

I do not, however, conceive that Europe will ever obtain a sure colonial footing south of the Atlas, or that the Mussulmans of the Sahara will lose anything of their present religious character. At worst, Southern Morocco and Fezzan will always remain independent Mohammedan states, the nucleuses of religious life in Barbary, and links between the Mussulmans of Northern and Central Africa, while further east, the growing influence of Egypt will make itself felt intellectually to the advantage of believers.

Nor must we lose sight of the possibility of a French defeat. I believe that at no time during the past forty years has the military position of “our allies” been in a graver peril in their colony than now, or the resources of their antagonists greater. It is a weakness of the French system in Africa that it has made no attempt to assimilate the native population; and it is the strength of that population, in as far as it is Arab, that it does assimilate French thought to its own advantage. It is far from certain whether the conquest of Algiers may not some day have for its effect the renewal of Mohammedan political vitality in all the Barbary Coast.

A more absolute and immediate loss must be anticipated in Europe and Western Asia. There it is pretty certain that in a very few years, Ottoman rule will have ceased, and the Turkish-speaking lands composing the empire will been absorbed by one or other of the powerful neighbours who have so long coveted their possession.

Austria, in person or by deputy, may be expected by the end of the present century to have inherited the European, and Russia the Asiatic, provinces of Turkey proper, while the fate of Syria and Egypt will only have been averted, if averted it be, by the intervention of England. That a dissolution of the [Ottoman] Empire may and will be easily accomplished, I have myself little doubt.

There is at the present moment, I am informed, a last desperate effort making at Teheran for the re-organization of the Empire on a liberal basis of government, and though it would be folly to count much on its success, it may conceivably succeed. Mohammedanism would not there, as at Constantinople, be found a barrier to reform, for Persian Shi’ism is an eminently elastic creed, and on the contrary may, it is thought, be made the instrument of a social reformation; only, as I have said it would be folly to count on its success; and there are certain moral defects in Persian character which do not encourage lookers-on. Shiite Mohammedanism, however, whether Persia be absorbed or not by Russia, is of little importance in a general review of Islam’s future, and may safely be dismissed as not directly relevant to the main question before us.

The museum version. Oxford Circus, March 2009.
The museum version. Oxford Circus, March 2009.

Admitting, then, the probability, nay, the certainty, of considerable political and territorial losses northwards, caused by the violent pressure of a hostile Europe, let us see what yet remains to Islam as her certain heritage, and how the changes foreshadowed may affect her general life. I cannot myself find any cause of despair for Mussulmans in the prospect of a curtailment of their religious area in the directions indicated, or any certain reason of exultation for their enemies in the thought that with the fall of Constantinople, Islam, too, will have fallen.

England, if I understand her history rightly, stands towards Islam in a position quite apart from that of the rest of the European states. These I have described as continuing a tradition of aggression inherited from the Crusades, and from the bitter wars waged by the Latin and Greek empires against the growing power of the Ottoman Turks.

In the latter, England took no part, her religious schism having already separated her from the general interests of Catholic Europe, while she had withdrawn from the former in the still honourable stage of the adventure, and consequently remained with no humiliating memories to avenge.

She came, therefore, into her modern relations with Mohammedans unprejudiced against them, and able to treat their religious and political opinions in a humane and liberal spirit, seeking of them practical advantages of trade rather than conquest. Nor has the special nature of her position towards them been unappreciated by Mohammedans.

In spite of the deceptions on some points of late years, and recent vacillations of policy towards them, the still independent nations of Islam see in England something different from the rest of Christendom, something not in its nature hostile to them, or regardless of their rights and interests.

They know at least that they have nothing to dread from Englishmen on the score of religious intolerance, and there is even a tendency with some of them to exaggerate the sympathy displayed towards them by supposing a community of beliefs on certain points considered by them essential.

 Excerpted from Wilfred Scawen Blunt’s The Future of Islam (1880). Published under a Creative Commons license, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Photographs by Joel Schalit.

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